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Fake Lao Tzu Quote

"Nature is not..."

Fake Lao Tzu quote: Nature is not human-hearted.

This is NOT a quote from Tao Te Ching:


"Nature is not human-hearted."






Human-hearted is a weird expression. Human hearts can be of so many kinds, whether we mean emotions or mentality. It is hard to figure out what would be a quality of the heart shared by the whole species.

       But there is a Chinese word sometimes translated with the expression human-hearted: ren, which means to be humane, benevolent, or simply kind. It was used as an ideal by Confucius and other ancient Chinese thinkers, including Lao Tzu.


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       For example, chapter 5 of Tao Te Ching starts with the following lines (my version):


Heaven and Earth are not kind.
They regard all things as offerings.
The sage is not kind.
He regards people as offerings.


       The word 'kind' is ren in the original text. These lines have caused some concern among interpreters, since it seems to imply that Heaven and Earth as well as the sage are all indifferent to human suffering, even ruthless.

       In a way, that is true. Lao Tzu pointed out that there is a grand scale of things in which individual needs do not matter. Tao works in its own manner, whatever we think about it or might hope for. In the grand order of the world, humans and their fates are really insignificant.

       Heaven and Earth are the two parts that together form the whole world. Like the rest of humankind at that time, ancient China had a geocentric view, with the earth in the center and everything visible of the cosmos out there simply being its surroundings. But there were in Lao Tzu's eyes dynamics between Heaven and Earth, described in the same chapter. Between them, all things and lives emerged:


Is not the space between Heaven and Earth like a bellows?
It is empty, but lacks nothing.
The more it moves, the more comes out of it.


       It would not be misleading to substitute 'Heaven and Earth' with 'the world,' or for that matter 'nature.' I would not choose the latter, since it would fit better to describe all that comes out of the bellows. But it is doable. So did, for example, C. Spurgeon Medhurst in 1905 (page 9), Lin Yutang in 1948 (page 63), and Wing-tsit Chan in 1963 (page 107).

       Then the quote discussed here could be understood as a version of the first line of chapter 5. And it is.

       In literature using the quote it has often been referred to as from this chapter. Also in the oldest mentioning of it that I have found in print, which is from 1962. It is in the UNESCO series Impact of science on society, XII, 3 (page 194), in an article by Alan Mackay called "An Outsider's View of Science in Japan."

       He interpreted the quote to mean that nature was not anthropomorphic in the Taoist perspective, and therefore people of the East have found it easier than those in the West to accept scientific revelations about evolution, heliocentricity, and relativity. That is a bold interpretation, at least in reference to the quote discussed here.

       Unfortunately, Mackay did not mention from what version of Tao Te Ching he got the quote, and I have not been able to find it. In his list of references, the one book that seemed plausible to contain the quote - The Ways of Thinking of Eastern Peoples from 1960, by Hajime Nakamura - does not.

       Maybe Mackay paraphrased some Tao Te Ching version, but it is still odd that he would choose the expression "human-hearted." He might have done so to increase the contrast between nature and humans, for the sake of his theory. It is also possible that he made his own translation of the Chinese original, which would have given him the opportunity to find the English expression for ren fitting his thoughts the best.

       Mackay's article might not have found that many readers, but in 1977 the quote with the same accreditation was published in The Harvest of a Quiet Eye: a Selection of Scientific Quotations (page 91). The selection of the quotations had been made by the same Alan Mackay. A new edition was published in 1991 with the shortened title A Dictionary of Scientific Quotations.

       The quote also found its way into other dictionaries of quotations - and later on, the Internet.

Stefan Stenudd
September 19, 2020.



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Fake Lao Tzu Quotes - Erroneous Tao Te Ching Citations Examined. Book by Stefan Stenudd. Fake Lao Tzu Quotes

Erroneous Tao Te Ching Citations Examined. 90 of the most spread false Lao Tzu quotes, why they are false and where they are really from. Click the image to see the book at Amazon.

       More about the book here.



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